Hacktivist Jeremy Hammond Gets 10 Years in Prison

Nov 15, 2013 at 1:20 PM ET

In a courtroom packed with about 80 of Jeremy Hammond’s supporters, many of them tattooed and pierced, there was an audible groan as Judge Loretta Preska sentenced the hacktivist Friday. Hammond pled guilty earlier this year to stealing 200 gigabytes of email and 60,000 credit card numbers from a Texas-based geopolitical intelligence firm.

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“Mr. Hammond seems to think of himself as a modern day Robin Hood,” the judge said, referring to his plan to have activists use the stolen credit card numbers to make donations to not-for-profit organizations. “But it’s very unlikely these organizations benefited, because they had to return the fraudulent donations.”

Hammond, wearing a navy blue jumpsuit, seemed to hang his head low when Judge Preska announced the 10-year prison sentence, but he remained motionless in his chair. He appeared clean-shaven, looking much younger than his 28 years, with a tangled mop of curly brown hair. Ten years was what the prosecution had asked for and was the maximum that Hammond could have received. Denied bail, Hammond has spent the last 20 months, partially in solitary confinement, in the Metropolitan Correction Center, a downtown New York City jail.

In December 2011 Hammond hacked into the servers of Strategic Forecasting Inc. and downloaded thousands of emails and about 60,000 credit card numbers that belonged to 860,000 Stratfor clients. The emails, which WikiLeaks then published, revealed a troubling network of quasi government- and private-interest relationships.

Hammond’s supporters claim that the leaked Stratfor emails show how Stratfor was hired, for instance, by Dow Chemical to spy on victims of the Bhopal environmental disaster. In another instance, his supporters claim that the emails show how the Texas Department of Public Safety “infiltrated” the Occupy Austin movement. Cumulatively, they reveal how governments and private interests often work together in surveillance of individuals and businesses around the world.

Today Hammond’s defense lawyers painted a picture of a gifted computer student with a streak of liberal, politically minded activism. “We created a whistle-blower statute, but when people blow the whistle, others don’t like it,” said Hammond’s defense attorney, Susan Kellman.

When Hammond addressed the court, he explained the rationale behind his actions. His hope, he said, was to expose a massive surveillance network that can, without the proper oversight, skirt the law. Hammond was initially involved in protests and rallies in his native Chicago to bring exposure to the issue. But, he said, “I became frustrated with the limitations of peaceful protest.”

“I felt I had to expose injustice,” he added.

Since his May 2012 arrest, the online hacktivist community has rallied behind Hammond. More than 250 friends, family and supporters have issued statements to Hammond’s defense, painting Hammond as a modern-era whistle-blower akin to Edward Snowden—a young computer programmer out to expose corporate misdeeds.

“Yes I broke the law,” Hammond added. “But sometimes laws must be broken for change.”

Daniel Ellsberg, who rose to whistle-blower fame in 1971 for releasing the Pentagon Papers, issued a statement on Nov. 5, claiming Hammond’s sentencing should be mitigated.

“As the first person prosecuted in the US for unauthorized disclosure, I continue to be a supporter for the need for whistle blowing to maintain a constitutional republic and avoid grave governmental abuses,” Ellsberg wrote. “My decision to go public with the Pentagon Papers was a difficult one. At my own risk, I released them, just as Jeremy Hammond has done. I believe the actions taken by Jeremy Hammond need to be viewed in a context that considers the profound consequences of private surveillance of political activists in the United States.”

The state’s prosecuting attorney, Preet Bharara, sees it differently. Bharara issued a sentencing statement earlier this week that claimed that “[c]ontrary to the picture he paints of himself…Hammond is a computer hacking recidivist who…went on to engage in a massive hacking spree during which he caused harm to numerous businesses, individuals and governments, resulting in losses of between $1 million and $2.5 million, and threatened the safety of the public at large, especially law-enforcement officers and their families.”

At 19, Hammond was first arrested and sentenced to two years in prison for hacking the website of a conservative, pro-war group. Today, the state’s prosecution reinforced the idea that Hammond is not a whiste-blower, but a “mayhem”-motivated cyber criminal who caused irreparable damage to thousands of individuals by leaking personal information. Clearly, they said, he has not learned his lesson.

Though the leaked credit-card numbers resulted in the loss of millions of dollars, Hammond himself never profited from the leak, and a sentence of 10 years seemed draconian to sympathizers. As people exited the courtroom, many mumbled epithets about Judge Preska.

Hammond’s defense attorneys looked deflated. Moments earlier, Kellman had pleaded for leniency from the judge, urging her to see Hammond’s actions in the context of the increasingly digital world.

“This is the beginning of the debate,” Kellman said. “We are, as a digital culture, moving quickly—perhaps faster than institutions themselves.”